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Issue Date:  September 29, 2006

Democrats push alternatives to abortion


Less than two months before a hotly contested election, a political party is playing the pro-life card, touting its efforts to reduce the more than 1 million abortions that occur annually in the United States.

Another Republican wedge issue? Hardly.

This time it’s leading House Democrats from both sides of the abortion debate who have put forward a proposal supporters say could reduce the number of abortions by 1 million over the next decade. The legislation -- the “Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act” -- represents the first concrete plan to emerge after more than a year in which the party, lead largely by pro-choice Catholic members of the House, has sought to soften the sting of criticism from the church hierarchy while repositioning Democrats to compete for the “values voters” thought to have been key in the 2004 presidential race.

The new approach is not a backbench-led effort. The bill’s supporters include Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., who as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is charged with overturning Republican control of the House, and Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., who is locked in a tight race for Senate. Former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry backs the idea, as does Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Bob Casey Jr., running in an increasingly close race for the seat currently held by Republican antiabortion stalwart Rick Santorum.

“Democrats are united in our efforts to significantly reduce the number of abortions in America by broadening the stagnant political debate that too often accompanies this issue,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, the measure’s lead sponsor and a member of the House pro-life caucus.

“Despite so much rancor and divisiveness in our society and in our politics when it comes to discourse surrounding abortion today, this bill reflects common ground on the goal of reducing the number of abortions in America while still protecting the privacy of women and families,” said cosponsor Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., a member of the House’s pro-choice caucus.

DeLauro was the primary author of a “Statement of Catholic Principles” released last February by 55 House Democrats (NCR, March 10). “Each of us is committed to reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies to be carried to term,” said that statement.

The new legislation would add $40 million annually to pregnancy prevention and contraception programs, increase the adoption tax credit, allow states to expand Medicaid-funded child health care programs, and fund college-support programs for pregnant students and new parents pursuing higher education. In addition, the bill would expand the Woman, Infants and Children nutrition program, increase daycare funding, provide in-home nurse visits to teenage mothers, and support additional domestic violence prevention programs for pregnant women and new mothers.

Traditional pro-life groups did not endorse the bill, said Ryan, because of its support for family planning programs that include contraception funding and counseling. Instead, the U.S. Catholic bishops and other antiabortion advocates are supporting a similar measure -- minus the contraception initiatives -- introduced Sept. 20 by Reps. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., and Chris Smith, R-N.J. “Given the staggering 1.3 million abortions in the United States each year, the Pro-Life Secretariat [of the U.S. bishops’ conference] applauds constructive initiatives to support women and their children, both born and unborn,” said Deirdre McQuade, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “Everyone can agree that no woman should choose abortion due to economic duress,” said McQuade.

Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Bob Casey Jr. endorsed both bills.

Speaking in Washington at his law school alma mater Sept. 14, Casey looked back over more than a decade to make the case that today’s Democratic Party welcomes those who oppose legal abortion. The 46-year-old state treasurer recalled a “dark night in 1992 when the national Democratic Party insulted the most courageous pro-life public official in our party who simply asked that those who believed in the right to life be accorded the right to speak.”

That “courageous pro-life public official” seeking to address the Democratic Convention that nominated Bill Clinton was then-Pennsylvania Gov. Bob Casey Sr., the current candidate’s father. Whether the senior Casey, a popular New Deal-style liberal, was denied the opportunity to speak because of his strongly pro-life views or, as party officials contended, because he refused to endorse Clinton is still debated. But it matters little. The moment became a symbol to many of Democratic intolerance toward those who dared to stray from the pro-choice party line.

“Things have changed over the ensuing 14 years,” Casey Jr. told The Catholic University of America law school audience. “I have been encouraged to see Democrats in this new century becoming more open to people who are pro-life.” Casey said the Ryan-DeLauro legislation “would work toward real solutions to our abortion problem by targeting the underlying factors that often lead women to choose abortion.” He said, “I believe we need policies that provide maximum feasible legal protection for the unborn and maximum feasible care and support for pregnant women, mothers and children.”

Meanwhile, Kerry told a Pepperdine University audience Sept. 18 that “the issue of abortion has been enormously divisive, but there is also no denying there is common ground.” Echoing the House Democratic approach, Kerry said that “our first step is to unite and accept the responsibility of making abortion rare by focusing on prevention and by supporting pregnant women and new parents.” Kerry said that increases in the minimum wage and universal health insurance coupled with increased spending on education, adoption and daycare would reduce the abortion rate.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2006

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